Fresh from a festival run—TIFF and the Cannes Film Festival where it competed for the Palme d’Or—comes Emily Blunt, Benicio del Toro and Josh Brolin in a drama about an idealistic FBI agent working with an elite task force to stem the flow of drugs between Mexico and the US. One critic in Cannes referred to it as a “French Connection for the drug-fuelled Mexico-US border war,” so expect tension, moral ambiguity and no happy endings.
After a grizzly discovery courtesy of the Mexican drug Cartels, by-the-book CIA kidnapping specialist Kate Macer (Blunt) volunteers to be part of a special task force led by freelancers Matt Graver (Josh Brolin) and the enigmatic Alejandro (Benicio del Toro). She thinks they’ll be trying to stem the flow of drugs from the US side of the border, but soon she learns that she’s working in a situation where the boundaries have been moved. On her first assignment a wild public shootout leaves a dozen people dead, but yet violence is so common that a showdown at the US -Mexican border is hardly news. “This will make the front page of every newspaper in America.” “No, it won’t even make the paper in El Paso.”
The plan is to disrupt the cartels. Despite prosecuting twice as many drug cases in one year as the previous two years combined, none of the arrests have made a difference. To truly get at the heart of the drug trade they have to break the rules, and, as Graver says, “shake the tree and create chaos.” That means bending the very principles that Macer holds dear.
“Sicario” (it means “hitman” in Spanish) begins with a tightly wound sequence and doesn’t go slack for the next ninety minutes. Director Denis Villeneuve has made a slow burn of a film, deliberately paced, that weaves complex quasi-morality with a sense of hopelessness into an edge of your seat story.
Leading the charge is Blunt. A multifarious mix of vulnerability, stone cold confidence and outrage, she’s the most interesting female action star since Imperator Furiosa.
Del Toro is a badass supreme as a man caught between doing the right thing completely the wrong way. Vicious and malicious, he doesn’t mind collecting a handsome paycheque while quenching his thirst for revenge against the cartel leaders.
The third part of the triangle is Graver, a jovial rule breaker who calls the shots. Brolin, the manliest man currently working on film, is an edgy presence joking and laughing his way through one dangerous situation after another.
The real stars here, however, are director Denis Villeneuve and cinematographer Roger Deakins. Villeneuve treats the story like an onion, peeling off layer after layer, taking his time to get to the core of the story. Deakins, an eleven time Oscar nominee, turns aerial shots of sprawling cities into metaphors for the magnitude of the problems facing the police. Later he transforms a standard night vision raid from videogame action to a wonder of texture and tension.
“Sicario” isn’t a feel good movie about winning the war on drugs. Instead it’s a powerful look at a seemingly unwinnable battle and the toll it takes on its soldiers.